Records Revisited: Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)

It has been 20 years since »Madvillainy«. It is the only joint LP by MF DOOM and Madlib and has become arguably the most influential underground hip-hop album of the modern era.

»Living off borrowed time, the clock tick faster«. In the seemingly endless cosmos of MF DOOM quotes, a tribute to »Madvillainy« could not begin more aptly than with the first words of opening track »Accordion«. For over 15,000 people on YouTube, it is »one of the most legendary songs in hip-hop«. Since MF DOOM’s death in 2020, his superhero-like deification has multiplied at least a thousandfold, but even before that, »Madvillainy« was considered a milestone in the genre—the most influential indie hip-hop album since the early 2000s. Ask Tyler The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, ask Thom Yorke or The Weeknd. But let’s rewind to the beginning.

Legend has it that it was an LA Times interview where Madlib said he wanted to work with MF DOOM. The then Stones Throw manager Eothen »Egon« Alapatt didn’t hesitate for a second and had a package of Madlib’s albums sent to DOOM through an old college friend. Shortly after, in the spring of 2002, the supervillain was on a plane from Atlanta to Los Angeles to meet Madlib at his studio, »The Bomb Shelter«, in northeast Los Angeles. The house also doubled as an office and home for Stones Throw Records, which, apart from one turntablism record, had yet to make a major commercial breakthrough.

So the whole budget for the production of the album—we are talking about 13,000 US dollars—had to be scraped together adventurously. While the managers upstairs are said to have signed the contract for the joint album on a paper plate, the two main protagonists brooded in the bomb-proof studio basement surrounded by jazz records and recording equipment. Or smoking bongs and drinking beer on the veranda of their Mount Washington accommodation. A setting that was extremely conducive to the creation of the album at this early stage. In no time at all, the songs »Meat Grinder« and »Figaro« were written.

Almost doomed to failure

Madlib recalls in an interview with Jeff Weiss for Pitchfork: »Everything was spontaneous and we worked with what we had. […] DOOM is like my super-smart cousin. We trade books and records by Sun-Ra or Charlie Parker. We were born of the same energy.« DOOM told the Red Bull Music Academy in 2011: »We barely exchanged a word. It was like telepathy. We spoke through the music.«

But when a 15-track demo of »Madvillainy« was leaked online shortly after Madlib’s trip to Brazil, the project seemed doomed. No one at Stones Throw believed in the record’s success. But the four-week stay was to prove particularly productive for Madlib. The Beat Conducta bought stacks of records at flea markets and record shops in São Paulo. While the DJs travelling with him went clubbing in the Brazilian metropolis, Madlib spent most of his time alone in his hotel room with a portable plastic turntable and a Boss SP-303 sampler, creating beat after beat on tape. The instrumentals for »Strange Ways«, »Raid« and »Rhinestone Cowboy« were created in the São Paulo hotel—all major tracks on the album, peppered with Brazilian samples.

»To this day, Madvillainy is hailed as an avant-garde masterpiece that broke with the classic album format.«

Back in the States and frustrated by the album’s leak, »America’s Most Blunted« turned his attention to other projects. Madlib released »Jaylib« with J Dilla. MF DOOM released two more albums, »Take Me to Your Leader« and »Vaudeville Villain«. After a long hiatus, the two reunited and DOOM decided to completely re-record the vocals. The villain now rapped in a softer, more relaxed and less aggressive tone than on the demo, recalls Peanut Butter Wolf in Will Hagle’s worth reading book from the »33 1/3« series.

A turn for the better

»Madvillainy« was finally released on 23 March 2004. Instead of torpedoing the project, the leak had the opposite effect: it raised expectations to unprecedented heights, making it Stones Throw’s best-selling album and, in retrospect, securing the label’s continued existence. To this day, »Madvillainy« is hailed as an avant-garde masterpiece that broke with the classic album format. No song breaks the three minute mark, the tracks just flow seamlessly into each other, with not a chorus in sight.

Madlib’s dusty lo-fi beats, all chopped-up samples and weird sound effects, are the perfect canvas for DOOM’s cryptic rhymes. His vocabulary is bottomless, and his wordplay is like no other, dropping double entendres and multi-syllabic rhymes left, right and centre. Put it all together and you’ve got »Madvillainy«, a landmark album for the new beat generation. There hasn’t been anything like it before or since. This is a record that deserves to be discovered by young and old alike, as Lord Quas himself said: »Today is the shadow of tomorrow, today is the present future of yesterday…«.